March 23, 2021

The Trump Slump is Here

We are starting to get some signs of the slump that has followed the four years of Trump’s presidency. And as you can imagine, it’s a pretty significant change.

According to The Washington Post’s PR team:

The Washington Post recorded 82.5 million total digital unique visitors in February 2021, according to Comscore. The Post saw the average amount of time readers spent consuming content go up 25 percent year over year, to 16.5 minutes.

However, if we look at what The Post did in January:

The Washington Post had more than 111.6 million unique visitors in January 2021, an increase of 27 percent year over year and 20 percent month over month, according to Comscore. On average, readers spent 19 minutes consuming Post content last month, up 14 percent compared to December and up 44 percent year over year.

If we take into consideration that January has 31 days and February only has 28, this is a 19% drop month-over-month in visits. That’s a pretty sizeable hit. And it’s not just The Washington Post. The Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN are all down similar amounts.

It’s almost as if there has been some semblance of a return to a sort of normalcy in Washington D.C. In January, we were dealing with insurrections, Trump consistently saying that the election was a fraud, and many of the largest media brand’s readers likely counting down the minutes to January 21st.

Now? Things are kind of boring. I’d be lying if I didn’t find myself completely uninterested in what’s going on in D.C. and read The New York Times and The Post far less than I used to.

The question, of course, is whether this will have a material impact on their businesses. A reduction in traffic will obviously hurt the ad business. And fewer people seeing the paywall means that fewer people will ultimately convert. On the other hand, these papers have had four years to prepare for what a post-Trump world could look like and should have been preparing with new content strategies to keep those people engaged.

My suspicion remains somewhat the same as when I wrote about this back in November. Those that are currently subscribed are unlikely to churn because they have built up a habit with the publication. Once you become a part of someone’s life, they remain customers for much longer. This is why I still pay for Netflix even though I consume a fraction of what I used to because Disney+ and HBO Max now exist. (Quick aside, I am really impressed with HBO Max.)

Nevertheless, we are already beginning to see a change in focus to help fuel continued growth at The Times. According to Bloomberg:

It currently plans to invest more money in games and puzzles than ever before. In a sign of its ambitions, the company recently hired Jonathan Knight, who helped make popular online games like Words With Friends and FarmVille while working for Zynga Inc. He brings the kind of digital knowhow that the Times may have lacked with traditional crossword gurus like Will Shortz. 

Selling multiple subscriptions at a discount, known as “bundling,” is a popular strategy in media because consumers are less likely to cancel. It could also help the Times justify raising prices in the future, said Evercore’s Belton.

“These products improve the ‘stickiness’ of the core news product,” he said.

Will The Times earn as much on a games subscription as it does from a core news one? No. The games product is only $40 per year while the news is close to $200. However, by bundling the two together, users of one get the benefit of the other as well. And to repeat what I said above, each of these products that a user subscribes to further reinforces the habit.

Going forward, we should expect The Times to double down on its pursuit of new subscription products, both as stand-alone businesses and also new ones to bundle with the core news product.

And it’s not just subscription media companies. Likely in an attempt to diversify away from the news, Vox is working on evergreen podcasts. According to Digiday:

Vox Media is testing out how one popular podcast can be an incubator for more audio shows not tied to the news.

The media company is starting with a weekly science podcast called “Unexplainable” that it launched on March 10. It’s an expansion of the media company’s “explainer” franchise, which began with a flagship daily news podcast called “Today, Explained” and now includes a Netflix series “Explained.”

Vox Media is using “Unexplainable” to test audiences’ appetite for additional podcasts not at the mercy of the news cycle, including a similarly evergreen podcast slated to debut later this year called “Missing Chapter,” as an adaptation of Vox.com’s Emmy Award-winning YouTube series that covered overlooked moments in history.

“The generic nature of ‘news’ is waning,” Thompson said. “It’s not strategic. Too much ambiguity there. Everyone tells you ‘news’ has the audience. Sure, but do they have the consumer I want?”

This is a critical step and I think it’s something more media companies should be trying to emulate. Being dependent on the news cycle for all of your growth gives you the boom and bust that has come from a Trump presidency. You’re addicted to the drug when he’s in office, but then the hangover the next morning hurts.

With these evergreen content approaches, you can plan and create content that has a longer shelf life. This has the secondary effect of providing your revenue team with a content calendar to sell against.

The other benefit here is that, for brands that don’t want to be associated with news or political content, these evergreen shows give them a brand-safe vehicle.

Publishers will need to get creative here when identifying topics. In the case of Vox, it already has a brand tied to explaining things; therefore, it’s straightforward for it to launch more explanatory content. One possibility is for publishers to look at what types of stories are in greater demand on the site and then pinpoint the evergreen topics as part of it. From there, it’s just testing things out, seeing what audiences gravitate to, and iterating.

Suffice it to say, media companies will need to figure out how they can build around their core offerings and attempt to remove themselves from the day-to-day news. That doesn’t mean The Times and The Post will suddenly stop doing news. Of course, they will continue reporting. But they’ll need new growth opportunities until the campaigns start up again in late 2022. Ready?

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